On November 2, 2000, an individual began posting at an old website called the Time Travel Institute, a forum dedicated to the discussion of all things time and time travel related. He posted under the pseudonym TimeTravel_0, and claimed that time travel would be discovered, and the first time machine built, by the year 2034.
Later, he would move to Art Bell’s Post to Post bulletin board system, where he would take on a different name: John Titor.
Over the years, his story of a future war, a mission to the past, and a brief stop in our own time from 2000 to 2001, has become something of an online urban legend. Some choose to believe his weird tale as possible fact, a potential worldline divergence and meddling by a time traveler being the only things preventing us from meeting his timeline’s same fate. Others, some twenty years later, have decided that John Titor was nothing but an imaginative hoaxer.
But that’s probably what keeps his story going — no one can ever know for certain.
Another contributor to John Titor’s staying power, however, is likely that his story is filled with a number of popular science fiction tropes. In fact — and this is a debate that’s been waged since the very beginning — many think that Titor based his story and predictions of the future on a number of scifi books and movies.
Is this true? The first clue might be in his name.
‘There was one man’
In 1984’s The Terminator, a cyborg is sent back in time from 2029 to 1984 to hunt down a woman named Sarah Connor. However, a human soldier from the future named Kyle Reese is also sent back to protect her.
In one scene, while the two are hiding out in a car, Reese tells Connor about life in the future. “I grew up in the ruins,” he said, “starving.” A hostile artificial intelligence with an army of machines had taken over the world. But then he revealed the true nature of his mission to 1984 and Sarah’s role in it: He was sent back in time to protect her because she was the mother of John Connor, the future leader of the human resistance against Skynet.
While John Titor’s story didn’t involve robots and rescue missions, it did involve a future nuclear war and a mission to the past. He was sent, he said, to 1975 to acquire an IBM 5100 computer system, which they’d need to solve the looming Year 2038 problem.
“I was ‘sent’ to get an IBM computer system called the 5100. It was one the first portable computers made and it has the ability to read the older IBM programming languages in addition to APL and Basic. We need they system to ‘debug’ various legacy computer programs in 2036. UNIX has a problem in 2038.” – November 8, 2000
With a scifi trip to the past involving future tech and computers, and with a name like John, is it possible the individual posting as Titor had been inspired by The Terminator?
‘This is heavy’
How about John Titor’s alleged time machine? He said it was “a stationary mass, temporal displacement unit manufactured by General Electric,” which used two “dual-positive singularities.” In very simple terms, he claimed it ran on two tiny rotating black holes.
But it was his mode of transportation that’s of note, here. While the time machine itself consisted of a large box (according to image schematics he would later share), the unit was actually housed inside the back of a car. More specifically, inside a 1967 Chevrolet, and later a 1987 4WD.
“The vehicle needs a strong suspension system to handle the weight of the distortion unit.” – November 8, 2000
In 1985’s Back to the Future, Doc Emmett Brown unveils his life’s work in the parking lot of Hill Valley’s Twin Pines Mall. It’s a time machine integrated into a DMC DeLorean, with the key to time travel — the Flux Capacitor — housed in the back. “The way I see it,” he told Marty, “If you’re gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?”
The Back to the Future series is one of the most popular time travel franchises ever made, and the time machine DeLorean is as iconic as Doctor Who‘s TARDIS or any other fictional time machine, if not more so. Is it possible John Titor based the design of his own time machine on those films?
‘High tech and low life’
The most striking similarities between Titor’s story and science fiction, however, actually involve two books: Pat Frank’s 1959 science fiction novel Alas, Babylon, and the 1993 roleplaying framework, published by Steve Jackson Games, GURPS Cyberworld.
I’ve already written about Cyberworld in the past. Its connection to Titor involves a fan-made campaign for the framework that includes many “plot points” similar to Titor’s story, stretching out to the year 2043. A lot of it surrounds the political landscape in a fictional future.
Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, on the other hand, is a compelling story about the aftermath of a nuclear war, and more specifically the effects it has on everyday people. As I mentioned in my short review of the book, Frank wrote the novel after being asked by a friend what he thought would happen if such a thing actually occurred. His intention was to treat the matter as realistically as possible.
The similarities between that novel and John Titor’s story are numerous. For example, Alas, Babylon is set in Florida. Titor claimed not only that he grew up in Florida in the aftermath of a nuclear war, but that, during his brief stop on our timeline, he stayed there with his parents:
“In 2036, I live in central Florida with my family and I’m currently stationed at an Army base in Tampa…The people that survived grew closer together. Life is centered on the family and then the community. I cannot imagine living even a few hundred miles away from my parents.” – November 4, 2000
The return to basic living, which ends up becoming a positive effect for many who were otherwise listless in the modern world, is also a strong theme of Frank’s novel. Titor mentioned the same many times.
“Food and livestock is grown and sold locally. People spend much more time reading and talking together face to face. Religion is taken seriously and everyone can [mulitply] and divide in the heads.” – November 4, 2000
Some of Titor’s advice also echoes what we see in Alas, Babylon. For example, he mentions getting a bicycle.
“Get a bicycle and two sets of spare tires. Ride it 10 miles a week.” – November 25, 2000
In Alas, Babylon, one of the characters does just that, and finds new purpose in life as a bicycle-riding mail carrier.
Fact Vs. Fiction
There are likely many other similarities between Titor’s story, his predictions, and popular science fiction than what I’ve gone over here. But these are, I think, the big ones.
The name John from “John Connor,” the time traveling car from Back to the Future, the return to communal living and the simpler things after a worldwide war in Alas, Babylon.
Of course, it’s always possible Titor wasn’t inspired by these things. I don’t claim to know for certain, and no one really can. I can’t ask him. But I think it’s fair to say, even if it was all just a hoax, his story at least turned out to be a decent bit of forum-based time travel science fiction in its own right.